According to Luther’s teachings about the Christian life, the good works God desires of us are carried out in our vocations. That is to say, the Christian life does not necessarily involve heroic accomplishments and dramatic deeds. Rather, God calls us to love and serve our neighbors in our ordinary interactions with the members of our families, our coworkers and our fellow citizens.
We also have other neighbors whom God has called us to serve. In addition to family members and coworkers, we have friends, acquaintances and a host of informal interactions. And we are often obliged to do good works for people we do not even know.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite had vocations to serve in the temple, but they neglected the man bleeding by the side of the road. The Samaritan had no particular vocation that required him to show compassion to this particular victim, but he did anyway (Luke 10:25–37).
However, there is an important facet of the doctrine of vocation that is sometimes overlooked.
The Lutheran doctrine of vocation is connected to Luther’s teaching of the three “estates.” In his Great Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), Luther critiques the “holy orders” of monasticism and gives an alternative: “The true holy orders and pious foundations established by God,” he writes, “are these three: the priestly office, the family and the civil government.”
These “offices” are the basis of the three “estates” that God has designed for human life in the world: the church, the household and the state.
Christians have multiple vocations in each of these estates: in the church as pastors and parishioners; in the household as spouses, parents and children; in the state as rulers, officials, soldiers and citizens. Luther sometimes speaks of our economic labor — the modern secular definition of “vocation” — in terms of the household estate, how a family makes its living, and sometimes in terms of the state, our contributions to the larger society.
But Luther also speaks of another dimension of human life, one which might be thought of as a fourth estate:
Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc. Behold, all of these are called good and holy works. (LW 37:365)
This “common order of Christian love” is where the three estates interact, where individuals of different vocations meet with each other. It includes what different people have “in common” and our informal relationships, such as friendships, as well as our obligations to our enemies, to people we do not know at all, and to everyone in need.
The “common order of Christian love” is also a realm for vocation. It does not involve a specific office, as the three estates do, but unofficial tasks and relationships. We can think of friendship as a calling to love and serve a neighbor. God called the Good Samaritan to care for the wounded stranger. When we see or hear of someone in need, we have compassion and seek to serve our neighbor.
The Table of Duties in the Small Catechism starts with “Certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders.” It gives our “duties and responsibilities” for vocations in each of the estates: “To Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers” and “What the Hearers Owe Their Pastors” (the church); “Of Civil Government” and “Of Citizens” (the state); “To Husbands,” “To Wives,” “To Parents,” “To Children,” “To Youth,” “To Widows” (the household); “ To Workers of All Kinds” and “To Employers and Supervisors” (the household and the state).
And then the Table of Duties addresses the “common order of Christian love”: “To Everyone.” It gives these Scriptures: “The commandments … are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom. 13:9). “I urge … that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1).
In his Great Confession, Luther emphasizes that the good works we do in our vocations in the estates and the common order do not save us. But they do make us holy. “We are saved through Christ alone; but we become holy both through this faith and through these divine foundations and orders” (LW 37:365).